Helen is Lesley (the oral historian's) great-aunt. She is 94 years old. She was born in 1917 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her mother was quite sick throughout most of Helen's life; she had tuberculosis and Helen and her siblings spent some time living with their grandfathers and other relatives. This was how Helen learned to understand Yiddish. Her parents didn't speak it at home, but her grandfathers and other relatives did. Both of her grandfathers were quite orthodox.
In this interview, Helen talks about growing up in an orthodox neighborhood and an orthodox family and shares some memories of the family's religious/cultural practices: going to shul with her grandfathers and father, walking across the Williamsburg Bridge every Shabbos, candling eggs before Passover, having Passover seders at which everyone from the shul was invited.
In 1928, when she was about 11 years old, Helen moved with her family to Brownsville, Brooklyn, and she lived there until 1950. In the interview, Helen talks about growing up with her mother in and out of hospitals and sanitariums, and ultimately dying when Helen was in her early 20s. She also talks about having had a younger brother who she barely knew who also died of tuberculosis. Helen's girlfriends, especially her six best friends from the neighborhood, were her salvation. She was particularly close with Mildred (Millie) Epstein (Lesley's grandmother) and the two young women eventually married brothers Sidney and George Yalen/Yelen. Helen talks about the dates she and George used to go on around Brooklyn; a trip she went on with Millie, Sidney, and George to Canada; and the fun times she had with friends.
She also talks about living through the Depression, about working in the garment industry for a while and being on picket lines, and about living apart from George while he was in the Pacific for two years during WW II. She describes herself and her friends as a little pink, but says they were all disillusioned with communism when Russia signed the non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939.
Helen touches on her sympathy for Israel and her involvement with Jewish organizations, as well as her love of old Yiddish songs. She also discusses how and why she became more secular over the years. Primarily, though, she tells stories of family life, of her late husband George, of her three sons, and her friends.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story
To cite this interview: Helen Yelen Oral History Interview, interviewed by Lesley Yalen, Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, Karmazin Recording Studio, Yiddish Book Center, July 8, 2011. Video recording, http://archive.org/details/HelenYelen8july2011YiddishBookCenter ( [date accessed] )